Well, another college football season has come and gone and all we learned was that Alabama is still really good and Notre Dame isn’t back yet. Oh, and following NCAA rules is a good idea just in case you happen to go undefeated unexpectedly some year. Failing that, at least don’t get caught if you happen to bend the rules.
As for the finale on Monday night, I was able to watch the national championship game without remorse for the carnage or taking any particular joy in it, either.
I respect the SEC for what it has done in terms of hiring coaches and recruiting and developing players rather then hate it for its success, and being born in the ’80s, I don’t have any strong emotions about Notre Dame.
I see the pros and cons of the whole Fighting Irish thing. There’s some arrogance there, yeah, but that’s true of many programs. My first really vivid memory of Notre Dame is Gary Barnett telling his Northwestern players to expect victory and not carry him off the field when the Wildcats win. That was almost 20 years ago. They haven’t really been good enough to be annoying ever since.
The degree to which some Irish teams have been overrated in the meantime probably helped the Big Ten, if anything. It helped vault John Cooper’s still fledgling OSU program onto the national scene in the mid-90s and many a Michigan season was set up for ultimately being disappointing thanks to a thrashing of the Irish in September.
Of course, Michigan and its in-state neighbors in East Lansing returned the favor this year, going down to Notre Dame in the first month of the season when the Irish were still trying to gain a spot in the national title picture.
As for the conference of the Wolverines and Spartans, I found the reaction to the Big Ten’s most recent bowl performances a bit puzzling. Or at least over the top.
Yes, the league won only two games, but I’m not sure if you noticed but that was what was supposed to happen. Nor was it surprising that several of the games were competitive. It’s not as if the Big Ten has been getting blown out in every game every New Year’s Day for the past five years. Yet both of these happenings this year produced a lot of hot air that missed the main point.
The problem for the conference remains what it has been since at least the middle of the past decade: inferior coaching. That is exacerbated in the postseason by systematically poor matchups that can be attributed to no other than Jim Delany.
The conference – presumably intentionally – signed up to play the best team in the Pac-10, and a bunch of team from the SEC every year. This is no excuse, just a fact. Delany is correct when he says they haven’t ducked anybody when it comes to postseason matchups. I have no problem with that, but it probably should be acknowledged when we go about wondering what’s wrong with the league.
Of course this year it did not send its best team (Ohio State), and another 8-win squad (Penn State) had to stay home as well. That kept Wisconsin out of a more winnable matchup and basically assured a Rose Bowl loss. So strictly in regards to the postseason, it’s really been a death by 1,000 cuts now for going on more than half a decade, and reiterating that doesn’t serve much purpose.
The larger problems certainly lie with general program strength from top to bottom, and those come almost exclusively from a lack of quality coaching hires in the past decade or more.
Big Ten teams and Big Ten fans can complain all they want about Ohio State’s string of high-profile nonconference losses in the middle of the past decade, but until they build a program of their own big enough to knock the Buckeyes off they don’t really have a leg to stand on.
Bad coaching hires have a tendency to create a ripple effect, too, as they can set back roster building for years.
Delany wanted his teams to face the best and play on New Year’s Day. Now he’s reaping what he sowed. But the commissioner is certainly not the main culprit here (and based on an interview he gave to the ESPN Big Ten Blog, he plans to address some of the issues). He also gave every school in the conference a financial leg up with its last TV deal and the brilliantly forward-thinking creation of the Big Ten Network, but few of them have done much to take advantage.
Despite worry about the great migration of population to the South and west, there are enough players to stock plenty of solid-to-good programs in the Midwest. Ohio State, the only school sitting in a talent rich state, might be the only one with the resources to be a consistent national power anymore. Michigan is back in the discussion thanks to its history and proximity to Ohio, but it is too early to tell what the ceiling will be for Brady Hoke’s program.
Regardless of the status of the unbeaten Buckeyes and the rebuilding Wolverines, the rest of the league needn’t be as weak as it has been for the majority of the past seven seasons, and there is unfortunately a lot of uncertainty yet on the immediate horizon across the league.
With or without Bret Bielema, Wisconsin’s days of regular double-digit wins were probably over with Ohio State’s return from NCAA purgatory and Michigan’s return from its self-imposed Rodriguezisation. Darker days may be ahead for Michigan State, too, if it gets more competition for local players it has been getting in the past few years who would have traditionally been more likely to be Buckeyes or Wolverines.
Penn State is in limbo, and Nebraska has some serious soul searching to do, but all is far from lost in Lincoln.
All of those schools – along with Iowa – have the money, fan bases and name brands to be tough outs every year even if they have little chance of being true national contenders.
I think Indiana is moving (slowly) in the right direction with Kevin Wilson, and Purdue could be, too, with newly hired Darrell Hazell.
Illinois should be better based on the population base it’s near and the popularity of football there, but it remains to be seen if they are far from needing yet another reboot.
That Northwestern can be in a bowl and be competitive every year shows anything is possible.
The league just needs coaches (including assistants) who can build and develop stable rosters. That means identifying talent throughout the region and getting it to stay home. Coaching it up wouldn’t hurt, either.
The SEC has done a better job of keeping its best players in the region going to SEC schools than has the Big Ten in the Midwest, and that is a real issue. It includes not only the handful of elite guys who have gone to Texas or Alabama or USC from Ohio but also the next-tier prospects who slip through the cracks and end up as stars in the MAC or the Big East. I respect the coaching being done in those leagues, but there is no reason for a Big Ten team to lose in recruiting to them. The difference in exposure thanks to the disparity of television contracts (and resulting revenue) should provide a major advantage for a coach when he goes into a kid’s living room.
Recruiting is an inexact science, but consider that of the eight players from the Mid-American Conference drafted last season, five were from Big Ten states. Two more were from New Jersey, a contiguous state traditionally recruited by Penn State.
Of the 12 Big East players drafted, half were from Big Ten country. That includes four from the University of Cincinnati who grew up in Big Ten country but not very near the Queen City. The Bearcat program has grown quite nicely in the past decade, but other than hometown pride, what does it offer that betters any Big Ten program? Not every Big East game is even on real television.
It is unlikely many – perhaps any – of those kids turned down Big Ten programs to go to the MAC or Big East, but that hardly absolves anyone. There are always surprise success stories, but the best coaches find and develop them consistently. Danny Hope and Tim Brewster and even Rich Rodriquez might still be in the league if they did a better job of identifying who can help them and offering them rather than letting them end up elsewhere.
Then the league might have more to look forward to next bowl season.